Unpacking Amhara’s self-denial and the Ethiopian identity

Ethiopia Regional map of-FDRE
Written by Israel Fayisa

(OPride) – Identity has always been at the core of human socio-political evolution. The institution of slavery was based on identity. Imperialism took place at the expense of different identities. Today, democratic governments around the world struggle to address questions of identity.

Despite this fact, some elites deny the relevance of identity as a strong force for political organizing. For example, in the former Soviet Union, identity was treated as a primordial human nature – a false consciousnesses that ought to be settled through the elimination of classes. But the end of Cold War and the rise of national independence movements disproved communism’s disdain for identity politics.

Still, other groups like the Amhara elites and activists in Ethiopia reject their ethnic backgrounds in favour of an overarching ‘national identity’. Ethiopia has over eighty ethnic groups, all with distinct language and culture. As such, addressing identity issues remains a top priority. It is therefore puzzling to see Amhara elites deny their ethnic background even today when the country’s ethnic federalism holds the only chance of survival for the country.

It is true that identity is fluid and negotiable. For example, people lose their languages, culture, and religion taking up a new culture from their surroundings. That is what happened in the case of African-Americans. But while speaking Amharic, dancing to eskista and eating doro wat, can the Amhara elites convince anybody that they are not Amhara? Why do they want to be called Ethiopian and nothing else? Are they not Amhara first?

Despite the presence of objective characterizations visible to the whole world, some groups don’t want to be known as the world sees them. Sometimes that kind of self-perception emanates from the desire to be associated with a ‘superior’ identity. For example, some black Sudanese self-identify as Arabs. Arabic language, culture and religion have dominated their life and they want to be associated with the dominant culture instead of their ethnic identity.

Something similar happened to the Amhara of Ethiopia but with different manifestation. Elites from the Amhara ethnic group do not want to disassociate their identity from the broader Ethiopian identity constructed on the bases of their self-perception. In this case, the ‘Ethiopian’ identity and the Amhara ethnicity were deliberately intermarried, creating an overlapping and confusing perceptions. Amhara rulers forged the boundaries of what is known as Ethiopia through iron and blood. Their descendants, the Amhara elites today, are proud of this legacy.

For them, there is a higher ideal built into being Ethiopian than being Amhara. Ethiopia’s historiography is told and retold by glorifying the deeds of Amhara rulers while denigrating the brave and patriots among their neighbours.

Every national value or symbol associated with Ethiopia or being Ethiopian is molded in the image of Amhara ethnic group. In essence, for the Amhara elite, Ethiopia has long been the mirror reflection of Amhara ethnicity. Separating the Amhara identity from Ethiopian identity has consequences these elites do not want to accept. If the Ethiopian shell is removed from their back, the Amharas fear that they’d become a small fish in the sea of diverse ethnic groups. Then, they would no longer represent the whole image but only one color of a big rainbow. Their dominant narrative will be altered and their national share of the cake will be reduced. In addition, they would lose claim to the ‘one nation, one language, culture, and one flag’ mantra.

The Amharic language, Ethiopia’s official working language, gave Amhara kids superior status in schools, at churches, work places, and in politics as well as the economic sector. Ethiopia’s laws and history were written and read in Amharic. Ultimately, by displacing local narratives, the Amhara culture became the national culture. The Amhara dress and hairstyles, their dances and other social artifacts were elevated to a higher status, above all ‘others.’ In some ways, Amharas see themselves as more Ethiopian than other ethnic groups. The possibility of becoming one among equals drives their irrational fear of ethnic politics.

In their rhetoric, Amhara elites make a case for a return to a common Ethiopian identity. However, there have never been a voluntary pact or convention among the country’s diverse ethnic groups to create such an identity. Efforts to arrive at a negotiated consensus on the country’s national identity were dodged by successive rulers.

Instead of a forced imposition, Ethiopia’s survival now depends on the creation of a new state system by all nations and nationalities within its border. Such an arrangement has to come peacefully and based on the will of the people.

Amhara elites and activists often confuse Ethiopia with Habesha. Habesha refers to the residents of ancient Abyssinia, inhabited mostly by Semitic-speaking Amhara and Tigre. Explaining the true origin of Habesha a writer
states that around first century A.D., some Hamitic-Semitic peoples (Sabaean traders) from South Arabian came into contact with native people and intermarried.

Their offsprings were referred to as “Habesha”, which means “people of mixed blood”. Their land (Tigray, Begemdir, Gojam, Northern Shewa, and Welo) was later termed Abyssinia. It was only when the Abyssinia state exhausted its scarce resources that its leaders expended its frontiers South and Westward in order to amass the resources needed to feed their subjects.

He further explains per advice from Count Pietro Antonelli, an Italian with geographic Society mission in Abyssinia, the state of Abyssinia combined with the newly added states of the South and the West, were later referred to as ‘Ethiopia’.

Attempts to appropriate the term Habesha to all people in Ethiopia is part of the same assimilationist policy used by successive monarchs, which included changing the names of places in the South of the country to Amharic.In short, Ethiopia or being Ethiopian (defined by country of citizenship) and Habesha are not equivalent words. While the reverse might be true, not everybody that lives in Ethiopia is Habesha.

Several attempts by Oromo elites to come to the political center and arguments in favor of a shared-rule have ended with frustrations. The Amharas either don’t believe that Ethiopia can exist under Oromo leadership or they see continued dominance of Ethiopia’s politics as
their manifest destiny.

Beneath the Ethiopian mask, Amhara elites believe that the possibility of an Oromo or someone from a different ethnic background ruling Ethiopia deteriorates their superior Amhara identity. That is why Amharas resort to rhetoric about national integrity every time an identity question, particularly that of the Oromo is raised on the national stage.

In other words, Amhara’s viability as a socio-political entity is tied to the pretentious notion of Ethiopian unity. While this concern sounds plausible on the surface, especially considering the centripetal socio-political forces of their adversaries, the main problem lays elsewhere. The Amharas believe that Ethiopia is their creation and it belongs to them. The elite see themselves as the vanguard of the country’s tenuous unity. Little do they acknowledge that Ethiopia’s existence is predicated on the persecution of Oromo and other people in that country. Even today, they yearn for a return of their oversized and privileged status above all other ethnic groups. Monopolizing the Ethiopian narrative is therefore used as a means to protect that privilege and seek a return to power.

It is time the Amhara elites recognize their wrong self-perception built over a course of a century and accept that they are Amhara first. That’s the only way to the middle road, if ever. For an all-inclusive de-ethnicized civic Ethiopian identity to emerge, the Amharas must ditch their insistence on non-existent unity and be guided by the voices of the majority people in the region. In the final analysis, such an arrangement is the only way the country’s current borders can be maintained. The ball is now in their court.

*Israel Fayisa is a former Oromia Supreme Court judge currently living in exile. He can be reached at



About the author

Israel Fayisa

Israel Fayisa is a former Supreme Court judge in Oromia, Ethiopia. He can be reached at

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